Nine months before Denis Diderot’s body is scheduled to make its rendezvous with those of Voltaire, Rousseau, and Condorcet in the Pantheon, his name has made its first appearance on the op-ed pages of the New York Times in a concise and informed assessment by Andrew S. Curran burdened with the title (for which, odds are, Curran is not to blame) “Diderot, an American Exemplar? Bien Sûr!”
Curran sees Diderot as the champion of a conception of liberty that, in contrast to “today’s hackneyed understanding of freedom” was animated by a restless quest for an “intellectual emancipation from received authorities — be they religious, political or societal — and always in the interest of the common good.” He characterizes Diderot as an advocate of an enlightenment that was “progressive” and “secular,” which makes him “the precise type of secular Enlightenment thinker that some members of the Texas State Board of Education have attempted to write out of their high school curriculum” (let’s not even try to guess what sort of Enlightenment thinker would past muster with these Texas guardians of public virtue). It is “Diderot’s willingness to confront both the unconscionable and the uncomfortable, often embracing subject matter that his contemporaries fled” that warrants his place in the Panthéon and justifies seeing his entry as “a collective acknowledgment that part of what makes an artist great is having the courage to provoke and challenge.” While the collectivity in question is, of course, French, Curran insists that Americans have a stake in this as well:
The message ought to resonate on this side of the Atlantic, too. While it’s sometimes easy for Americans to forget, thumbing one’s nose at the establishment has been central to our own cultural and political traditions since, well, Diderot’s time. After all, that’s how we became Americans in the first place.
And it is here where the doubts begin, even for those who share Curran’s affection for le bon Denis (since Hume gets to be “le bon David,” let’s do the same something similar for Diderot — Twitter hashtag, anyone?).
The “ought” in Curran’s closing paragraph suggests a “hasn’t.” We can grant that Diderot’s message ought to resonate over here, but the suspicion that it hasn’t begins to arise after a few minutes of playing around with that bluntest of instruments: the nGram. Comparing appearances of “Diderot” to the names of other three Pantheonized philosophes, we find Diderot running neck and neck with Condorcet (who really deserves better) for third place until around 1875, when Diderot establishes a modest lead. Meanwhile, in the battle for first place, Rousseau is making a steady climb and, sometime in the early 1930s, surpasses Voltaire (caveat lector: Jean-Jacques’ numbers may be helped at bit by Henri’s).
A trip to the Proquest Historical Newspaper’s NYTimes Historical Database (I suspect there should be a trademark symbol somewhere in there) indicates that the most recent previous appearance of Diderot’s name in the Times was November 2008 (NB: since the Proquest database cuts off at 2009, there is a four-year gap). He makes a walk-on in Caroline Weber’s review of Susan Pinkard’s A Revolution in Tastes: 1650–1800 in the Sunday Book Review, which is far and away the most common place where those Americans who read the New York Times are likely to encounter Diderot’s name. A few months earlier, Chistopher Hitchens went so far as to quote him in a review of a book by Bernard-Henry Lévy and earlier in the year, Lewis Hyde, in a review of Richard Sennett’s Craftsmen, alluded to the role that interviews with artisans played in the writing of the Encyclopédie.
Readers of still earlier issues of the Sunday Book Review would have encountered him in Mark Lilla’s lament that, a the start of the nineteenth century, Russians lost interest in Locke, Voltaire, Diderot, and D’Alembert (a quartet of names that dances of the keyboard almost as easily as John, Paul, George, and Ringo) and became, well, Russians (July 29, 2007, G15). And Diderot, of course, looms large in a review of Malcolm Bradbury’s To the Hermitage (April 1, 2001 BR11), a novel in which he steals the show: aside from academics, does anyone remember the academics in the novel? Plunging further back into days when college professors owned summer homes, drank cocktails, and pulled in salaries that weren’t all that much lower than bankers, Albert Guerard was properly impressed by the first volume of Arthur Wilson’s great Diderot biography (May 26, 1957 BR4). Guerard’s account of the virtues of le bon Denis (sounds good doesn’t it?) prefigures Curran’s:
In Diderot, we feel a power which even now we cannot fully comprehend. In this he resembles a man who seems to be his very antithesis, Pascal. Neither is a blank-eyed Olympian, an academic ”immortal“ …. Diderot, moving spirit of the Encyclopédie, but also Grub Street drudge, playwright, musical theorist, art critic, author of disreputable tales, still baffles classification.
Appearances of “Diderot” outside the upscale neighborhood of the Sunday Book Review are rarer, but they provide some clues on his presence in American intellectual life (perhaps this is as good a place as any to note that Roland Mortier’s massive Diderot in Deutschland, 1750–1850 has been with us since 1967 and to wonder whether it is too much to hope that someone might try churning out an article on Diderot in America?). Movie goers could catch sight of him in A. O. Scott’s review of Barbet Schroeder’s documentary Terror’s Advocate, when the film’s subject — the lawyer Jacques Vergés (a.k.a. the “luminous bastard“) — gives this explanation for his joining up with de Gaulle during the Occupation:
France was Montaigne, Diderot, the Revolution, and it was intolerable to me that that could disappear.
Vergés might have sported a creepy list of clients, but I suppose there are worse definitions of What France Means.
Diderot actually made it onto the front page at least twice. In 1986, his name appears in a review of an exhibition at the Orsay; the title of the article — “The Orsay, An Encyclopedia of a Museum” — makes it obvious why he’s there (December 4, 1986, A1). Moving backwards, he turns up again on July 31, 1977, in an article on those wild and zany guys, the Nouveaux Philosophes (remember them? no? never mind). Readers of the Times were treated to this summary of Bernard-Henri Lévi’s take on the origins of totalitarianism:
Mr. Lévy … roots the evil of modern oppression and repression in the 18th-century French philosophers, Voltaire, Diderot and other Encyclopedists, for spawning the belief that some people —the intellectuals —know the secret of remaking the world and have the mission of enlightening what they consider to be the brutish or insufficiently conscious masses.
Why anyone ever found BHL’s recycling of talking points from the Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire du Jacobinisme or The Anti-Jacobin Review worthy of attention might be explained, in part, by the photo of BHL and his sidekick Andre Glucksmann that graces the story. What they lacked as historians of philosophy they made up for in style — let’s face it: they looked good in leather jackets (though nowhere near as good as this guy). Sadly (or happily, depending on one’s resentement quota) the current Wikipedia photo of BHL serves as an object lesson on why men of a certain age — even those with recent wax jobs — ought to keep their shirts buttoned.
Pressing further back in time, we can pause briefly at a March 27, 1952 article on the promotion of Herbert Dieckmann to full professor at Harvard (who knew the Times used to cover such things?), which recounts how he found Diderot’s manuscripts in “an old castle in Normandy” (note to self: add “find some old manuscripts @old castle” to my RTM account) and then move on to an article from November 28, 1944: “Langres a Mecca for War Pioneers; Its Charm Draws Others, Too.” The article is evidence of why, despite its awful interface, the Times Historical Database is well worth having. “Few towns in France,” we are told, “attract more sentimental Americans” than Diderot’s birthplace. But we arrive at Diderot’s name only after several paragraphs on the town’s role as the site of the first tank school of World War I, the recent establishment of a Red Cross club in the town, and a discussion of its amenities for tourists.
Struggling to make sense of why the Times would be offering tips for visits to France in the fall of 1944, I downloaded the entire page and was reminded again of what we are losing with the move from paper to digital newspapers. The story about Langres is surrounded by accounts of the Third Army’s advance into “the Reich,” by news of the trench network that “snarls” the First Army, and by two massive maps with topographical details, twisting frontlines, arrows showing the lines of advance, railway connections, and so on. Finally, at the bottom of the page, the reader finds the following item:
Orders captured from a Panzer grenadier division have disclosed that the German High Command is placing a heavy penalty on ‘shirkers’ in the front line who deliberately break their false teeth or their glass eyes to avoid combat. ‘False teeth may not be taken out except for cleaning purposes,’ the order said.
The article about Langres is not unaware of the world that surrounds it, and this is where Diderot comes in:
The impact of the present has not shattered Langres physically, but naturally its serene aloofness is gone for the present. The statue of Diderot still dominates the central square and the splendid cathedral pokes its eminence into the lowering fog. And over all there rises, to greet anyone who has loved the little town, the realization that it will again be as lovely as it was.
So, “We’ll always have Langres.”
But back to the Times of January 25, 2013 and to Curran’s suggestion that Diderot ought to matter to Americans since his stance towards “the establishment” has something to do with “how we became Americans in the first place.” It is here that the strains in the argument start to show, and not just because because Curran’s characterization of Les Bijoux indiscrets — one of the strangest books in a century that was not sparing with them — as “a forerunner to The Vagina Monologues” doesn’t quite work. A play in which women talk about vaginas is one thing. A book in which vaginas talk (and always in Italian, which Diderot seems to have regarded as the lingua franca of the lascivious) is something quite different. The larger problem is that the only history in which Diderot has much to do with America is an aspirational one: a story about an America which we might want to inhabit, rather than the one we’ve wound up with.
What is it, then, that drives Americans of a certain political disposition and a certain level of education (in other words, “us”) to see the American Founding as a partially-owned subsidiary of The Enlightenment Project, Inc.? It might have something to do with the reasonable desire to push back against the proliferation of junk histories that assure our fellow citizens that the Founders were good Christians and ours was, from the very start, a Christian nation. And it may, in part, be a consequence of the undeniable fact that enlightenment ideas were available during the Founding period, that it is possible to find participants at a Massachusetts town meeting speaking a dialect that sounds like Locke (or, more likely, Cato’s Letters), and that men like Franklin and texts like the final clause of Article Six of the Constitution thrilled enlightened Europeans. But what did Americans actually know about Diderot, aside from the role he had, along with D’Alembert (who inevitably tags along, playing McCartney to Diderot’s Lennon), in producing the Encyclopédie?
The evidence from a man who was in a position to know more about Diderot than most Americans is not exactly encouraging. In his letter to John Adams of April 8, 1816, Thomas Jefferson explains that he’d always supposed that Friedrich Melchoir Grimm was part of “the school of Diderot, d’Alembert, D’Holbach.” But Jefferson immediately undermines his status as a Paris insider by crediting Diderot, rather than D’Holbach, with having written Le Bon Sens. In any case, just what could the American Founders have known about what Diderot was writing? Most of the staggeringly inventive works that Curran mentions remained, of course, in Diderot’s desk. I’d like to think that Franklin owned a copy of Les Bijoux indiscrets, but since Malcolm Bradbury is no longer with us, we’ll have to imagine that happy prospect on our own.
So the gap remains between the title of Curran’s article and its argument. Diderot as an exemplar of what America might become? Bien Sûr! Diderot as an exemplar of the attitudes that made us “Americans in the first place”? Sadly, mais non.